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I never get to say everything I want to say with these things, there’s never enough time. For example, in the Chicken Little
review there was actually a lot of fascinating stuff going on between Disney and Pixar that I didn’t even get to mention because I spent so much time talking about the fan-hate for that film and how I felt it was completely overblown. So, Chicken Little
came out around the time when Pixar’s co-production deal with Disney was coming up for renewal and there was a lot riding on it, as whether it was a success or failure would strengthen or weaken Disney’s hand at the negotiating table. A flop would allow Pixar to say “See? You can’t make CGI movies without us, your movies blow chunks.” and a success would allow Disney to say “Nu-uh, our movies are totally boss and everyone says so.”
A typical Disney boardroom negotiation.
Chicken Little was released in 2005 and was a resounding minor success. Critics hated it, but it did do quite well at the box-office. Pixar realised that while Disney’s CGI output might not be ready for primetime, they’d probably be better to have as a friend than as an enemy. And so Disney and Pixar patched things up and decided to stay together for the kids and the billions of box-office and merchandising revenue generated by those kids. Disney acquired Pixar wholesale in 2006, at which point it became very, very difficult to tell where Disney ends and Pixar begins, what’s a Pixar movie and what’s a Disney movie and who exactly is qualified to be a Disney princess.
Sure. Why not? She wasn’t in a canon Disney film, but why not? Hell, let’s make BUGS BUNNY a Disney Princess, who cares anymore?
Sorry. It’s just been a dark time for people like me who don’t like their fishfingers touching the peas. Today’s movie, Meet the Robinsons
was created right about the time that “Disney” and “Pixar” were becoming “DisneyPixar” (“Dixar”, as the media conglomerate shippers call them) and it really, really, really shows. In every Disney era there is a movie that sums up that whole era perfectly. Pinocchio
is the quintessential Tar and Sugar movie, Jungle Book
perfectly defines Scratchy Movies and honestly, I kinda feel that Meet the Robinsons
is the ultimate Lost Era movie. Not that it’s bad (it’s not). But it is thoroughly weird
and constantly searching for a tone. There’s also a wild, “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” style to its comedy, and in fairness to it, a lot of it does indeed stick. It’s a movie that feels more like several little movies strung together rather than a single, cohesive whole. But first a little background.
Meet the Robinsons is loosely based on A Day with Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce, the infamous Anglo-Irish fascist who, during the second world war broadcast Nazi propaganda from Berlin into British homes as the notorious “Lord Haw Haw”…
Ah. Different William Joyce. This William Joyce is an American illustrator, children’s author and animator and most definitely not a Nazi. He did write Epic, however, so. Y’know. He’s not Mother Teresa either. He also worked on some really good movies like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. Which side of the spectrum does Meet the Robinsons fall on? Let’s take a look.
The movie begins on a rainy night where a mysterious figure leaves a baby on the steps of an orphanege. Flashforward twelve years and the baby has grown up to become Lewis, a bright, blonde haired kid who bears a distinct resemblance to young Jonathan Lipnicki.
Lewis shares a room in the orphanage with another kid called Michael “Goob” Yagoobian, who is honestly one of the most adorable characters I have ever seen.
Awwww…look at that punum!
Lewis is working on an invention to impress a couple who are coming to the orphanage to possibly adopt him. Instead, he almost ends up killing his prospective foster father when his PBJ machine sprays him with peanut butter and sets off his allergy. The orphanage’s administrator, Mildred (Angela Bassett) finds Lewis moping on the roof of the orphanage. He’s depressed because he’s now been rejected by 124 couples. Also, he’s going to turn thirteen soon, leaving only the least superstitious couples as possible adopters. The tone of this movie is all over the place as I previously mentioned, but I will give it this, the adoption stuff really works. You really feel Lewis’ sense of inadequecy and abandonment, and it might have something to with the fact that director Stephen J Anderson is himself an orphan. Lewis angrily says that no one has ever wanted him, not even his own mother. Mildred tells him that he can’t know that and that his mother may well have wanted to keep him but simply couldn’t look after him. This gives Lewis the idea of tracking down his birth mother by creating a device that can retrieve the memories of his mother that were stored in his little baby noggin. To remind everyone, his last invention was a machine that couldn’t correctly spread peanut butter and jam (yes, I said “jam”, my side of the Atlantic, my rules). And from that, he’s moving on to science-magic capable of unlocking the mysteries of the human brain. Kid’s got moxie, I’ll give him that.
Cue the power of montage as Lewis basically gives up on getting adopted and focuses all his time on building his machine, keeping poor little Goob awake all the time in the process. This montage incidentally is set to Another Believer, by Rufus Wainwright, who did a few different songs for this movie and you know what? It’s my blog and I don’t need to justify putting up a picture of Rufus Wainwright to you people.
Mount me, you reincarnated Romantic era poet, you.
Mr Willerstein, Lewis’ science teacher, suggests to Lewis that he enter his brain scanner in the school science fair. Jesus. Imagine how the other kid’s feel. You’re a twelve year old who’s worked for weeks on that papier mache volcano and then little Steve Jobs here shows up with the next frontier in neuroscience in his Spider-man schoolbag. More like a School Science Unfair, amirite?
Huh? Get it? A Science Un…
The Science Fair is being judged by Mr Willerstein (Tom Kenny) and the school Coach (Don Hall, trying so, so, so hard to be Patrick Warburton it’s actually a little sad).
No one can BE Patrick Warburton. All we can do is try and live our lives according to his teachings.
The judging panel is rounded out by Lucille Krunlehorm, a scientist from Inventco Labs who’s gamely voiced by Laurie Metcalf. I’d say Metcalf gives probably the best performance in the movie. Unfortunately that’s a pretty low bar to clear. The cast in this, honestly, is pretty lacklustre. Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry who voice Lewis are both fine (Hansen’s voice broke before production was finished and Fry was brought in to finish up) but there are a LOT of characters in this and quite a few just don’t work in terms of the vocal performance.
Ah Wilbur, we were just talking about you.
Right, so Astro Boy up there is Wilbur Robinson, voiced by Wesley Singerman who is…a very nice young gentleman who is doing his best. In fairness to the guy, his vocal performance is only half the problem. I know it sounds weird to say this about an animated character but Wilbur Robinson is a terrible actor. Just the way that he moves, the gestures he makes, it’s just bad acting. Wilbur approaches Lewis and asks him if he’s been approached by a man in a bowler hat and claims to be from the future. Wilbur tells Lewis to just carry on with the science project while he looks for the Bowler Hat Guy. Man, I’m conflicted about Bowler Hat Guy. Okay, remember when I was talking about the merger between Disney and Pixar? So, as a result of that John Lasseter became the head of Disney feature animation and this was the first Disney movie made under his stewardship. Lasseter’s main contribution was in overhauling the design of Bowler Hat Guy…and damn.
Look at that mustachioed bastard.
I LOVE this design. I’m a sucker for diabolically evil characters and every hair, every every tooth, every mad staring eyeball on this guy just screams VILLAINY. And the movement is just as good, BHG moves like a human daddy long legs, you almost expect to hear piano-forte in the background like your watching an old silent movie. Visually, the character works like gangbusters. But again, it’s the vocal end that trips it up. Now, BHG is voiced by Stephen Anderson, the director. And for a guy who doesn’t do voice acting for a living it’s certainly not a terrible performance. He’s got good comic timing and he makes the funny lines land. But Anderson’s voice is just a little too booming for such a pencil thin character. The role was actually offered to Jim Carey, and if you’ve seen A Series of Unfortunate Events you’ll know just how awesome he could have been in this part. Selflessly, Carey turned down the role so that he could warn us all about how the number twenty three is going to murder us all or something.
Yes. That’s a real movie. Yes. That is what it’s actually about. Yes. The guy is nuts.
So Bowler Hat Guy is so called because he wears a sentient robot bowler hat called “Doris”. Doris secretly flies into Lewis’ machine and sabotages it, causing it to catch fire when Lewis turns it on to demonstrate it to the judges. This causes the sprinklers to turn on and the science fair has to be abandoned. Lewis runs home, devastated and the Bowler Hat guy and Doris make off with the abandoned brain scanner.
Back on the roof of the orphanege, Wilbur tries to convince Lewis to go back and fix the machine but Lewis tells him to screw off, saying he doesn’t believe he’s from the future. Wilbur then proves he;s from the future in the most idiotic way possible, by pushing him off the roof so that he lands on Wilbur’s invisible time machine which breaks his fall.
So, a few points.
1) That fall was still absolutely far enough to seriously injure or even kill Lewis depending on how he landed.
2) Considering how small the time machine is Lewis could very easily missed and hit the ground because…
3) It’s FUCKING INVISIBLE and Wilbur had to rely on memory alone to know where the time machine actually was which is hardly a comforting thought when you remember that…
4) Wilbur’s brains consist mostly of macaroni and glitter.
Anyway, Wilbur takes Lewis to the future and the future is AWESOME. The future city is just a big bright, technological utopia with no pollution or ocean dumpage and everyone travels in tubes!
THE D WAS RIGHT!!
Having convinced Lewis that he really is from the future, Wilbur says that they have to go back to the science fair so that Lewis can fix his memory scanner. Lewis asks what’s the point of that when he can just use the time machine to go back and meet his mother?
Good for you Lewis, that’s using the old noodle.
Wilbur freaks out at the suggestion and says that they can’t risk disrupting the timeline and oh god, he’s one of THOSE people. You know the kind, always going on about preserving the timeline and not changing history. Loosen up, for God’s sake, a little tampering with history never hurt anyone, right Robo-Tutankhamun?
“AFFIRMATIVE MY GOOD CHUM.”
The two boys scuffle and end up crashing the time machine. This is a problem, because there are only two in all of existence and BHG has the other one. Wilbur tells Lewis that he has to fix the time machine and Lewis agrees to at least try provided that Wilbur then takes him back to see his mother Wilbur agrees. They smuggle the totalled time machine into Wilbur’s garage where Lewis meets Carl, a golden, panicky, effeminate robot…
I’d say “Disney, you whores!” but they own him now.
Carl freaks out when he sees Lewis, and Wilbur slaps a hat on him, saying that his blonde hair is a dead giveaway because apparently there are no blondes in the future. Wilbur runs after Carl and tells Lewis to stay in the basement but Lewis gets sucked up a random tube and gets lost in the Robinsons’ mansion and oh sweet Jesus in heaven NO!!
So, in the course of around two minutes, this movie introduces a jawdropping FIFTEEN new characters as Wilbur meets each of the Robinsons in turn. And their giant squid because why not? I know a lot of these characters are based on William Joyce’s own relatives, that they were in the original book and that in fact there are a lot more in the book that were cut from the movie. So I can understand that they were unwilling to cut any more characters. But, on the other hand (and try and follow my reasoning here) THIS MOVIE INTRODUCES FIFTEEN NEW CHARACTER HALFWAY THROUGH THE MOVIE AND THAT IS GODDAMN INSANE!
This reaches its natural peak of absurdity when Wilbur finds Lewis, corners him in the broom closet and basically gives him a POP QUIZ ON THE ROBINSON FAMILY TREE JUST SO THE AUDIENCE CAN BE REMINDED ABOUT WHO IS RELATED TO WHO. And so many of these characters could have been excised. Look, I’m as big a fan of Adam West as anyone, including members of his immediate family, but his Uncle Art character adds nothing to the story. The only characters you really need are Frannie (Wilbur’s mother who trains singing frogs), Bud and Lucille (Wilbur’s grandparents) and Cornelius (Wilbur’s dad, thus far unseen but described by Wilbur as looking like Tom Selleck).
Unshaved Mouse. Come for the reviews, stay for the pictures of hot, smouldering hunks.
Meanwhile, back in the present, things aren’t going so good for BHG and Doris. The BHG tries to pass off the memory scanner as his own invention to the board of a big tech company, but since he can’t even turn the thing on he gets thrown out and the machine gets smashed. Deciding that he needs Lewis to repair it, BHG and Doris break into the orphanege and instead find Goob. Goob has had his chubby little cheeks beaten by the other kids on his base ball team. See, because Lewis was keeping him up all night, Goob fell asleep on the base ball field and was not able to catch the base ball with the base ball catching leather scoop and so his team did not win base ball. Goob sits on his bed, nursing his black eye with a steak and saying stuff like “Mr Steak? You’re my only friend.”
Yeah, even BHG’s blackened heart can’t help but be moved by Goob’s story. Goob says his coach told him to let it go and BHG yells:
“No! Everyone will tell you to let it go and move on, but don’t! Instead, let it fester and boil inside of you! Take these feelings and lock them away. Let them fuel your actions. Let hate be your ally, and you will be capable of wonderful, horrid things. Heed my words,don’t let it go!”
“Hey! He’s right! I’LL KILL THEM ALL!”
On the roof of the orphanege Doris finds traces of timey wimey and realises that Wibur has taken Lewis to the future and so the two set off in their stolen time machine.
In the future, Lewis is struggling to fix the time machine but can’t because, y’know, he’s twelve. Wilbur tells him to “Keep moving forward”, explaining that it’s the Robinson family motto. He says that his father basically created all the future technology that Lewis has seen, and gives him a tour of the house, including a small scale replica of the stolen time machine.
“What is this?! A TIME MACHINE FOR ANTS!?!”
Lewis stays for dinner with the Robinsons while in the garden, the BHG and Doris arrive in their cloaked time machine. Doris shits out a little mini-Doris that BHG can control remotely and they both start to case the area. To give Lewis a confidence boost Wilbur asks him to fix the family’s PBG machine but Lewis screws it up and sprays peanut butter and jam (COME AT ME BRO!) everywhere. But instead of being upset, the family are ecstatic because failure is an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. I can respect the sentiment, I guess, but I’ve just realised we’ve seen Lewis successfully invent or repair exactly zero machines throughout the course of this movie. I mean, like, dude. Do you even science?
Alright, so while piloting Mini-Doris , BHG sees Frannie’s singing frogs, who wear finely tailored suits and speak with Italian American accents because…
He uses Mini-Doris to take control of the brain of Frankie, the head frog and orders him to kidnap Lewis. But Frankie, despite being mind-controlled, has to point out that he’s a five inch tall frog and that he’s not sure this plan was thought through. BHG realises that he’s going to need a bigger minion, so uses the time machine to go back and get…
A MUTHAFUCKIN’ T-REX!!!
This leads to hands down the funniest bit in the whole movie as the T-Rex corners Lewis but can’t reach him because of his tiny arms, and then apologetically tells BHG in his sad dinosaur voice that he doesn’t think this plan was thought through. Wilbur sees that the T-Rex is being controlled by Mini-Doris and Lewis and Wilbur manage to knock the hat off, freeing the T-Rex from BHG’s control. Mini-Doris then gets dragged off by Frankie’s frog buddies and thrown in the boot of their tiny car, because this script was written via a game of Mad Libs.
You know what happens to someone who crosses the frog mafia? He croaks.
Did I really just make that joke?
Anyway, the Robinsons are so happy that Lewis is alright that Frannie offers to adopt him and Lewis joyfully says yes. Wilbur, realising that things have gone too far, takes off Lewis’ hat, revealing his blond haystack to the shocked Robinsons. Frannie says that she’s really sorry, but that Lewis has to go home. Like, NOW. Lewis is heart-broken, but begs that Wilbur at least take him back in time to see his mother like he promised. Frannie is furious with Wilbur, but he says that he was never actually going to do it and Lewis storms off. So, Lewis is pissed at Wilbur, the family is pissed at Wilbur, and the T-Rex is presumably slowly suffocating because of the much lower oxygen content in the atmosphere in this time period. So everyone’s having kind of a pisser, basically.
Alone in the garden, Lewis overhears the Bowler Hat Guy talking to Doris, saying how awfully he’s been treated.
“Poor child. Poor sweet child.”
Bowler Hat Guy offers Lewis a deal, repair the memory scanner, and in return he’ll take him back to meet his mother. Lewis agrees, and BHG takes him to his lair, a crumbling, decaying building in the heart of the metropolis. Lewis fixes the machine and then BHG double crosses him, surprising absolutely no one. BHG reveals that he’s got a lifelong vendetta against Cornelius Robinson. Lewis asks what’s that got to do with him and finally realises that HE is the mysterious patriarch of the family Robinson. This naturally causes conflicting emotions in Lewis. On the one hand, he’s going to have to RAISE that dumbass Wilbur one day. On the bright side though?
Yeah, we’re calling that a win.
Then Bowler Hat Guy drops the other bombshell, he’s Goob! After losing the base ball game (and probably helped by that little “embrace the dark side” pep talk from his future self) Goob became a bitter, hate filled pariah, living in the abandoned ruins of the orphanege and plotting his revenge on Lewis. That’s when he encountered Doris, who’d escaped from Lewis’ lab after proving to be pure evil. To clarify. He wanted to make a robot hat to brush people’s teeth and straighten their bowties, and instead created an insane machine with dreams of global domination. Jesus, no wonder his motto is “Keep Moving Forward”, if he looked over his shoulder all he’d see would be the trail of bodies and devastation left in the wake of his constant, catastrophic failure!
Carl and Wilbur manage to rescue Lewis but BHG and Doris escape into the past with the memory scanner and Lewis watches as the timeline begins to change around him. Wilbur disappears into a time vortex and Lewis ryuns into the now abandoned and darkened Robinson family mansion. He turns on an exposition machine and sees what happened. BHG sold the memory scanner to a big tech company and then used his clout to get them to mass produce a whole race of Doris’ who proceeded to conquer the world. The movie now takes a serious turn to the darkside as Lewis is attacked by the mind-controlled humans wearing bowler hats. It’s…it’s actually a lot scarier than I’m making it sound.
Now that is one dapper zombie apocalypse.
Lewis takes shelter in the broken time machine and finally manages to get it working. He flies the time machine outside and sees that the bright future utopia that he created has been replaced by a twisted industrial hellscape where the entire human population is enslaved by fancy, fancy, hats.
“Wait a minute…”
Lewis asks himself why he ever built Doris in the first place and then has an idea.
“Wait a minute!”
He travels back in time to just before BHG hands over the memory scanner and tells him that Doris is just using him for her own nefarious ends. Doris attacks him but Lewis defeats her by simply saying “I am NEVER going to invent you.”, causing her to instantly vanish.
“WAIT JUST ONE BLOOD SUCKING MINUTE HERE!”
Nit. Forget it. Don’t even bother.
“BUT THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”
I know it doesn’t. But here’s the thing. NO time travel story makes sense. At least, no time travel story that involves going back in time and changing history makes sense. You’ve probably already spotted the big plot hole in this resolution. Saying “I am never going to invent you” shouldn’t do anything because if he’s already DECIDED never to invent her then she should already have vanished. In fact, it shouldn’t even matter. By changing history so that she conquers the world in the past, Doris has erased the timeline where Lewis created her, ergo she shouldn’t exist at all. Few time travel movies hide this plot hole as poorly as Meet the Robinsons but they pretty much all do it, even the really, really good ones. Think of Back to the Future. By changing the circumstances of his parents meeting, Marty McFly threatens to erase himself and his siblings from history. But if he’s gone, then he never travelled back in time in the first place so the problem never arose. And this is a problem with any fiction that involves changing history, it always results in the time traveller’s future being changed so that they never go back in time in the first place. Weirdly, one of the few time travel stories to avoid this problem was one of the very first ones, Wells’ The Time Machine, which simply had its protagonist travel into the future and leave his own timeline untouched. My point is, I’m not going to come down too hard on Meet the Robinsons for such a glaringly illogical ending because a) They all do it and b) I have almost gone insane trying to resolve the exact same problem in my own time travel story (we’ll get to that soon enough).
Anyway, Lewis travels back to the future with BHG so that he can see the damage Doris wrought before the timeline fixes itself while they both watch.
“I…I…I…Mouse, I think I’m having a stroke. Everything smells like Tuesday.”
Lewis is reunited with the Robinsons who thank him for saving all of reality and we finally get to see Cornelius Robinson. Okay, so we now know that Cornelius is actually Lewis’ future self so he probably doesn’t look like Tom Selleck. Since Young Lewis looks like young Jonathan Lipnicki, that means that adult Lewis must look like adult Jonathan Lipnicki right? Wrong.
Sometimes the genes zig, sometimes they zag.
Cornelius (Tom Selleck, ha, I see what they did there) takes Lewis on a tour of his workshop and explains that demonstrating the memory scanner at the science fair was the big breakthrough that changed his life forever. Lewis says that he should probably go back and do that but Cornelius says that that’s up to him and that his future’s not set in stone. And he’s being awfully calm for a guy who’s entire existence and the existence of his family is dependent on the decisions of this twelve year old boy. If I was him I’d be like “YES! YES YOU SHOULD! IN FACT, IF YOU DON’T THE TIMELINE WILL RUPTURE AND WEIRD PTERODACTYL THINGS WILL APPEAR AND KILL EVERYONE!
This was Doctor Who’s way of resolving the problem of changing the timeline. It’s a weird show.
Lewis says his goodbyes and Wilbur flies off with him in the time machine. But before leaving him back at the science fair, Wilbur stays true to his world and shows Lewis the night his mother left him on the doorstep of the orphanege.
Lewis goes to speak with her but at the least minute, he backs away, deciding that she’s not his real family and that he needs to look to the future, not the past. Lewis gets back into the time machine and leaves, without ever seeing what his mother actually looked like.
Probably for the best.
Back in the present Lewis races back to the school gym with the memory scanner, stopping at the base ball court to wake up Goob so that he can catch the base ball and score one base ball.
And everyone is happy. Because they have won base ball today.
Having cunningly and ruthlessly erased his arch nemesis from history, Lewis pleads with the judges to be allowed one more chance to demonstrate the machine. Lucille offers to be his guinea big and Lewis uses the memory scanner to display Lucille’s happiest memory; her wedding day. To Bud. See, it turns out that Lucille is actually Lucy, Wilbur’s Grandmother. Bud and Lucille take an instant liking to Lewis, but say that he looks more like a “Cornelius” and adopt him. And I gotta say, apart from how weird it is that they changed his name once they adopted him, the scenes of Lewis moving into his new home with his new loving family are genuinely very sweet. The movie ends with Lewis planning to build a wonderful future, and fades to a title screen of an actual real life quote from Walt Disney himself, explaining where “Keep Moving Forward” came from.
Words to live by.
This movie is basically the entire Lost Era crammed into one film. At points it’s sweet and heartfelt like Lilo and Stitch,
wild and cartoony like Emperor’s New Groove
or weird and kinda bad like Home on the Range.
It never knows what it wants to be or what it should be doing and so it tries to everything. Having said that, there’s actually quite a lot to recommend it. It’s visually appealing, some of the comedy really works, the central protagonist is likeable and it is most certainly never boring. It sums up the whole aesthetic of this era of the Disney canon, always experimenting, always trying new things, and always moving forward.
Definitely starting to get the hang of this CGI thing
Ah, he’s a good kid.
Doris has a few genuinely creepy moments, and you can’t fault her for ambition but she doesn’t really have much of a personality.
Supporting Characters: 06/20
Solid. Nothing spectacular.
FINAL SCORE: 58%
NEXT UPDATE: 22 May 2014
NEXT TIME: In a special joint review, Mouse and Erik “Voice of Mouse” Copper will be taking a look at Enchanted. Erik loves it. Mouse hates it. Two reviewers will enter, but only one shall leave!
Neil Sharpson aka The Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer living in Dublin. The blog updates with a new animated movie review every second Thursday. He’s also serialising his novel The Hangman’s Daughter with a new chapter every other Thursday.